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Infectious Diseases

02 September 2020

Coronavirus morning update: SA's Covid contact-tracing app, and latest on universities

SA now has an official government contact-tracing app for the coronavirus; and universities gear up to welcome more students on campus - but many continue with online classes.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA

Cases update: 

The latest number of confirmed cases is 628 259.

According to the latest update, 14 263 deaths have been recorded in the country.

There have been 549 993 recoveries.

So far, a total of more than 3.7 million tests have been conducted, with 11 687 new tests reported.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases of coronavirus in SA

Latest news:

South Africa now has an official government contact-tracing app for the coronavirus.

Though it has not yet been promoted – and has been downloaded only a small number of times so far – the COVID Alert SA app is available for Android devices on the Google Play store and on the Apple App Store for iPhones, with the South African National Department of Health as publisher.

The small app, 2.1MB on Android phones and 5MB on iOS, promises to anonymously keep track of your contact with everyone else using it over a two-week period, the upper end of the incubation period for Sars-CoV-2.

If a user discloses they have tested positive for the coronavirus, everyone in that contact list is notified.

The app uses the exposure notification framework created by Google and Apple for use during the pandemic.

"By downloading and using the COVID Alert SA app, you become a part of a powerful digital network of app users who choose to work together for the benefit of everyone in the app community while all enjoying complete privacy and anonymity," the department of health promises.

"App users understand their exposure to Covid-19 and help others to do the same. We can all work together to curb the spread of Covid-19 and, ultimately, to save lives."

READ MORE | SA now has an official government Covid-19 tracing app – here’s how it works

Although they are allowed to have up to 66% of the student population back at campuses during the Level 2 lockdown, higher education institutions say they are still being cautious and intend to continue with online learning where necessary.

Last week, Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande announced that from 1 September, institutions could phase in 33% of students in addition to the 33% who returned under the Level 3 lockdown.

On Tuesday News24 asked six institutions - the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of Pretoria (UP), University of Fort Hare (UFH), University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) - for insight into their plans to phase in more students.

Although some students, including those in their final year, in health sciences and those requiring laboratories for experiments, had already returned to campus for contact classes, some universities, such as Wits, say they continued to use online teaching and learning as far as possible.

READ MORE | Universities gear up to welcome more students on campus - but online classes still the new normal for many

The Gauteng health department, in partnership with BMW South Africa, unveiled a Covid-19 screening and testing station at a clinic in Soshanguve Block TT clinic on Tuesday.

The station will be a triage area for people who are suspected of having the virus.

The screening and testing station was made possible by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the department and BMW, which was aimed at assisting the province's response to the novel coronavirus, according to acting health MEC Jacob Mamabolo.

"Today we unveil a part of the hospital project that is being undertaken through the signed MOU," Mamabolo said.

"The temporary screening facility at the Soshanguve Clinic is but yet another milestone in our journey to improve the quality of services we render to communities."

Mamabolo said that it was important to acknowledge that the department's partnership with BMW to strengthen the province's response to the spread of the pandemic in Gauteng.

READ MORE | New Covid-19 testing and screening station unveiled in Soshanguve

Numerous Covid-19 vaccine trials are in progress globally, with South Africa being one of the countries taking part. The University of Cape Town (UCT) and several other South African universities are involved in three international trials.

According to a UCT news release, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), said that both a Johnson & Johnson product (Ad26.COV2-S) and a Novavax product (NVX-CoV2373) will be trialled in the country starting in September.

Bekker is also the national principal investigator of the Johnson & Johnson trial alongside Professor Glenda Gray, president and chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the protocol chairperson of this trial.

“It is very important for South Africa to participate [in vaccine trials] because we can contribute to the global cause, and it helps scientists understand how South Africans will respond to these [vaccine] candidates,” Bekker said, adding:

“It also gives us an opportunity to investigate if there are any safety concerns and, importantly, to claim the vaccines once found to be effective and rolled out.”

READ MORE | UCT participating in three international Covid-19 vaccine trials

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE WORLD 

Cases update:

For the latest global data, follow this interactive map from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Early on Wednesday morning, positive cases worldwide were more than 25.57 million, while deaths were almost 853 000.

The United States had the most cases in the world - 6.06 million, as well as the most deaths - more than 184 000.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases worldwide

Latest news:

Spain recorded more than 53,000 new Covid-19 cases in the last week, per The New York Times.

Adjusted for population, that figure means the virus is spreading there faster than in the US, and at more than twice the rate of neighbouring France.

Barcelona Institute for Global Health epidemiologist Antoni Trilla told the Times that Spain's latest spike may be a glimpse of Europe's future.

"Perhaps Spain is the canary in the coal mine," he said. "Many countries may follow us — but hopefully not at the same speed or with the same number of cases that we are facing."

Covid-19 cases are also rising in Italy, Belgium, Greece, Germany, and in Eastern Europe.

Since Spain eased its strict lockdown in late June, loose restrictions for family gatherings, street parties, and night clubs, have been blamed for the coronavirus resurgence, according to the Times.

It also cited factors like tourism, and inadequate housing for migrants.

READ MORE | Spain is Europe's latest coronavirus hotspot and cases are spreading faster than in the US

LATEST RESEARCH

As the Covid-19 pandemic progresses, various existing drugs and remedies are being tested to stop the virus in its tracks and reduce mortality.

During the course of the outbreak, there have been glimmers of hope with drugs such as remdesivir and dexamethasone, while other treatments such as hydroxychloroquine proved to be ineffective against Covid-19.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, various drugs are currently being investigated, often without well-established data on safety or efficacy. But what if our genetics could provide a better understanding of which treatments might work?

Pharmacogenomics is the study of how our genes affect our response to drugs.

Most drugs are manufactured using a one-size-fits-all approach, but pharmacogenomics combines the fields of pharmacology and genetics to develop safe, effective medications that are tailor-made according to a person's exact genetic make-up.

While this field is still new, experts believe a tailor-made approach can help find drugs for many conditions – including HIV, asthma, cancer and Alzheimer's disease – by looking at specific genetic markers. This could help to avoid interactions with some drugs that may cause unwanted side-effects and outcomes.

READ MORE | Could genetics be the reason why some Covid-19 treatments work while others don't?

The role of children in the transmission and dynamics of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was not entirely clear at the beginning of the pandemic. However, in the meantime, several studies have helped to clear up any doubts.

A new study by South Korean researchers found that children can carry the virus in their noses and throats for weeks. They also found cases of asymptomatic (without symptoms) and pre-symptomatic (not looking or feeling sick at the time, but eventually developing symptoms) infection – a discovery that might help to explain the silent spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The study was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

For the study, researchers looked at data on 91 asymptomatic, presymptomatic, and symptomatic children diagnosed with Covid-19 between February and March at 22 centres throughout South Korea.

Overall, 71 children (78%) displayed symptoms, which included fever, cough, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and loss of smell or taste.

READ MORE | Children can carry Covid-19 virus in their respiratory tracts for weeks, study finds

With drugs such as remdesivir and the corticosteroid dexamethasone showing promise in trials, researchers are investigating several other options to treat Covid-19.

Now, researchers at the University of Alberta are about to proceed with clinical trials of a drug used to cure another deadly disease caused by a coronavirus. The twist? This disease occurs in cats.

"In just two months, our results have shown that the drug is effective at inhibiting viral replication in cells with SARS-CoV-2," said Joanne Lemieux, a professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry in a press release.

The drug being investigated is a type of protease inhibitor which slows down the ability of a virus to replicate inside the body, which then stops infection.

Proteases are enzymes which are able to break down proteins and peptides. These enzymes are found throughout the body and are used to treat a wide array of diseases, including high blood pressure, cancer and HIV.

READ MORE | From a deadly disease in cats, to Covid-19 in humans: A treatment researchers have high hopes for

HEALTH TIPS (as recommended by the NICD and WHO)

• Maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing

• Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus

• Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.

Image credit: Getty Images